Ordinary People, Extraordinary God

Scripture: Exodus 1:8-2:10; 3:1-15

The word “sabotage” comes to us from the Dutch. Hundreds of years ago fabric producers in the Netherlands began shifting the way they made cloth. The old way was labor-intensive, involving many artisanal cloth-makers working on small looms. But with the invention of large, wooden textile looms, business owners could guarantee a more uniform product and didn’t need as many employees. Workers feared for their livelihood and fought back. They took their heavy wooden clog shoes and tossed them into the gears of the industrial looms, snapping off wooden pins and wheels, thereby fouling up the machines. A wooden shoe was called a “sabot”, and that’s how we get the word “sabotage.”

The act of sabotage—workers subverting the intentions of those who command them—goes back much, much farther. We see it right here in today’s reading, from the time of the Hebrews in ancient Egypt. Everyday people disobey the most powerful man in the known world. In so doing, they become agents of divine deliverance in the battle of God vs. Pharaoh. But they are secret agents, whose mission and identity are hidden, even from themselves. They are saboteurs for God, without even knowing it!

A great deal has happened since the Genesis stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob from the past several weeks. The final fifteen chapters of Genesis tell the story of Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son. Joseph was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, came to be second-in-command of all Egypt by his power of interpreting dreams, and then provided his starving family with food during a years-long famine in Palestine. His father Jacob, all of Joseph’s siblings, and their families eventually move together and settle as new immigrants in Egypt. These migrants weren’t well-thought-of in their new land—they were shepherds, after all. But for Joseph’s sake the Pharaoh at that time let them remain. He encouraged them to settle on the edge of Egypt in the land of Goshen.

Now, it’s decades or centuries later. And “a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” What he does know is that these distasteful Hebrew shepherds are multiplying like rabbits. They represent clear and present “stranger danger” to this all-powerful pharaoh, and to the paranoid Egyptian public who believe his propaganda. Pharaoh doesn’t erect a wall or even put up a barbed-wire fence, but who needs halfway measures when you can just command ethnic cleansing? First his order goes out quietly, to the midwives—kill all the baby boys. That doesn’t work, so then Pharaoh tells all Egyptians to join in the genocide. “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile.” But the death-dealing despot is denied—the harsher he treats the Hebrew people, the sturdier they prove. He should have known better, but perhaps it’s not entirely his fault. He was born in the wrong era to have heard Princess Leia in Star Wars, “The more you tighten your grip… the more star systems will slip through your fingers.” So much for palace power and all its xenophobic bluster.

Pharaoh gets nowhere in his plans because of sabotage. Ordinary people—the kind he clearly takes for granted—refuse to go along with his commands. He didn’t reckon with five uppity women, whose righteous disobedience of Pharaoh sets a whole universe of salvation history in motion.

The first two women are Shiphrah and Puah, these plucky, sly midwives who revered God, and so disobeyed Pharaoh to his face. We don’t know whether they were Hebrew midwives or Egyptian ones who served Hebrew families, and it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that in the face of the tyrant’s command, they cared more about their calling to bear life into the world than about their own safety and survival. When he catches them not killing the baby boys as he demanded, they even come up with a playful excuse: “These Hebrew women are just too strong and fast for us to ever arrive in time!” Note that Pharaoh doesn’t even have a name in this story, but the names Shiphrah and Puah have been recorded and recited for millennia. “We remember these two discreet, defiant, cunning, mothering agents,” says Walter Brueggemann. “At great risk, they counter genocide; in so doing, they bear witness to the mothering power of God, whose will for life overrides the killing, and whose power for life is undeterred by the death dispensed by the powerful.”[1]

The other three women are all connected through the infant they work to save. They too defy Pharaoh in order to preserve innocent life. A newborn boy’s righteous mother hides him from the authorities until he’s too big to conceal any longer. Then in an act of desperate courage she puts the child into a carefully-made basket—the Hebrew word is the same as that for Noah’s ark—and sets him out on the waters. His older sister follows the little ark of life and watches over it. When it glides into the view and care of Pharaoh’s daughter, this young slave girl has the courage to speak to the princess, offering to find someone to care for the infant. The child’s courageous sister is the means by which his mother has her baby returned to her, and he grows up under the protection of the princess until he is old enough to join her at the palace. Pharaoh’s daughter is the fifth woman here—a privileged insider who makes common cause with the persecuted outsiders. She knows full well that this is a Hebrew baby, condemned by her own father to death in the Nile River. The princess extends her protection so that this innocent life will be spared. More than that—this Hebrew boy Moses grows up as a grandson to the very man who commanded his death. The life that Pharaoh wants to destroy is instead preserved by these five courageous women. Consider the irony, that “the power of God’s blessing even begins to infiltrate Pharaoh’s own household, through the back door so to speak, when Moses is saved by Pharaoh’s own daughter.”[2]

Where is God in these stories? So far, God hasn’t been mentioned directly or invoked. The God who will later bring on the plagues, split the Red Sea and become a pillar of fiery protection by night is hidden here. God works implicitly, behind the scenes. God moves ordinary people to act in courageous, extraordinary ways for the purpose of saving life. These righteous women may never know how the threads of their individual actions come together to form the fabric of salvation history. But so it is with God more often than not, who weaves ordinary lives together in unforeseen ways for the purpose of saving a whole people. In the actions of these five women we see God’s priorities: preserve life, sabotage deadly power, and use ordinary people in extraordinary ways.

Nobody in Exodus experiences God directly until a grown-up Moses encounters the burning bush. (I’m not sure why he needed a more unmistakable message, but perhaps he missed earlier, subtler signs from God. Men can be oblivious sometimes.) But Moses—like the women who saved his life—doesn’t see how his actions will come to reveal the power of God in the face of Pharaoh. All he knows at this point is how inadequate he feels. He’s run away from Pharaoh and is shepherding in the far-off fields of Midian at this point. He tells God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh”? In verses beyond our reading he lays out one excuse after another: I’m nobody special, I don’t even know who you are, there’s probably a warrant out for my arrest, I stutter, and nobody’s going to listen to me. God is patient with all the excuses of Moses but does not let him off the hook. He is one more ordinary person who will be an agent of salvation for this extraordinary God, whose name is finally given: Yahweh. Yahweh comes from the Hebrew word hayah, “to be”, “so that God is the power for life, the power of being, the power of newness.”[3] God sends Moses back to Egypt without a script of what’s going to happen, but with the promise that has sustained people of faith in every uncertain time: “I will be with you.”

The Exodus, God’s deliverance of the Hebrew people from Egypt, unfolds in future chapters after these stories. It has become one of the foundational stories at the core of Hebrew scriptures, has given hope to oppressed people for millennia, and set the example of freedom that inspired antislavery activists in our own country. But God’s deliverance of the people from Egypt, with all that it has come to symbolize for people throughout the world, would not have been possible had not stuttering Moses first said yes, had not the Pharaoh’s daughter disobeyed imperial decree, had not the sister spoken up to find his mother, had not the child’s mother shielded him from death, had not Shiphrah and Puah set the example of care for God-given life in the face of Pharaoh-decreed death. So it is with this extraordinary God who is hidden in the hearts and actions of ordinary people. Because the power of God—life, Being, possibility and newness—is at work, nothing is impossible, no matter how small it begins. As the proverb goes: A mighty oak is nothing more than a tiny acorn that stood its ground.

In a few minutes we’re going to feast at Christ’s table in celebration of World Communion Sunday. Coming forward, you will find a tray full of foods from around the globe. Everyday meals that ordinary people eat in daily life: rice cakes, spongy injera from Ethiopia, soft tortillas and Russian black bread. It is a sign to us today of the faithful people in every age who held to their faith, until now the Gospel which started in ancient Palestine extends to every corner of the world. Furthermore, each piece that we eat is the combined substance of thousands of little grains, once scattered in an anonymous field, brought together by God through the work of unknown hands, to become the bread of life. The juice which we drink comes from many small grapes, yet in God’s hands it is the cup of salvation and conveys the Spirit of Christ alive in us.

So when you eat at this table and drink of this cup today, feast on the ordinary things and remember the ordinary people who are instruments of God’s salvation. You share this communion with a vast globe of people, most of them unknown in the history of the powerful. But the God of Exodus is still at work all around us. Shiphrah, Puah and the other ordinary lives line up at the altar with you today. When you go home, you may even see Moses in the mirror. There’s no sense in pretending you don’t. Moses already tried telling God that he was nobody special. But Yahweh knows better, knows who we are, and fills us each with enough courage to make a difference. So what ordinary heroism are you called to by the extraordinary God?

Let us pray: God of miraculous deliverance, work your hidden wonders among your followers today. Give us ordinary people the courage to follow our callings from you, and knit our lives together in patterns that only you can see. Use our talents, tongues and lives as agents of salvation, fed and nourished to serve your loving salvation. Amen.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, “The Book of Exodus: Introduction, commentary and reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible commentary, vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 697.

[2] Marion Soards, Thomas Dozeman, and Kendall McCabe, Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year A, After Pentecost 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992), 142.

[3] Brueggemann, 714.

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